By MATT BUBBERS
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, July 5, 2019
The delicate metalwork of a vintage Porsche 911 mixes uneasily with rush-hour traffic. The gargantuan SUVs that surround us hardly seem to register the presence of this irreplaceable machine. The Porsche's aircooled, flat-six engine wheezes through traffic. For brief moments, its engine revs up and the whole car roars forward as if it has no inertia at all. These moments are thrilling, but fleeting.
Adam Westland is behind the wheel, his head almost sticking out above the windshield of this old Porsche convertible.
"Toronto sucks for people who love to drive," he says, threading the Porsche between trucks.
That realization prompted Westland to co-found RClub, of which he is also the chief executive officer. It's like a time-share for exotic, rare or otherwise interesting cars. Membership costs $9,000 or $15,000 annually, depending on how many days you want to drive the cars.
It grants access to a rotating fleet of cars that include this vintage Porsche 911, an Alfa Romeo 4C, a 1966 Ford Mustang, new and old Acura NSX supercars and a rare 1988 BMW "Sport Evo" M3. Such cars are catnip for keen drivers.
"I think there are a couple factors that allow RClub to work now," Westland says.
"One is just Toronto's wealth. Another is the condo boom, which has densified the downtown core, so there's more people and less space for cars." Even wealthy gearheads are looking to the sharing economy for solutions, and better ways to feed their habit. RClub is the latest driver's club to crop up in Canada, and the first in Toronto. The Twenty7 club in Mississauga is similar, with a fleet of supercars for use by members who pay monthly dues ranging from $1,800 to $4,800. One club in the United States offers members exotic cars in multiple cities. The car-sharing app Turo and car-rental agencies make it easier (read: cheaper) than ever to drive a supercar.
"We think the market can sustain maybe 200 driving members in Toronto with ease, but I don't really want to have that many," Westland says. RClub is looking for up to 80 members as it starts out.
More cars will join the club's roster soon, adds. A new Toyota Supra is already on order, and they're considering adding a McLaren or Ferrari, too. Members will get to vote on which cars join the fleet.
Drivers will be able to book a car for a day, a weekend or longer. The only thing they can't do is drive the cars on a racetrack, he says.
RClub's garage/clubhouse in Leaside, in Toronto's east end, isn't quite finished for the launch party, but the cars are all there, on display for prospective members. The event feels more like a Silicon Valley startup than a stodgy classic-car meet. Perhaps that's because of the unfinished industrial warehouse setting.
Or, perhaps it's owing to the fact that Westland and many of the guests are in their 30s. Aren't these the same millennials who - as so many car-company executives and marketers repeatedly tell me - aren't interested in cars?
More than 250 people turn up to the launch, according to the club. Guests arrive in everything from vintage Mustangs and Firebirds to a multimillion-dollar McLaren P1 supercar.
Westland confides that several people suggested memberships would quickly sell out if only he'd hire female models to pose with the cars. To those people, he says: Maybe this club isn't for you. Westland's wife is here. There are children running around, sitting in the cars. He wants to make this place inclusive, something car culture has not often been.
Westland and his partners, Igor Denisov and Noah Barlow, are bootstrapping the business, doing nearly everything themselves. None of them comes from an automotive-industry background. Westland worked in information technology. Denisov is an investment banker. Barlow has a marketing company. But all three are united by their love of cars and the frustration of being a gearhead in the city.
"I grew up when cars were bonkers," says Westland, 38. "My granddad had a Cadillac with fins; we always had a ton of cars around." He grew up in small-town Ontario, and estimates he has bought and sold at least 50 motorbikes and cars over the years.
When he moved to Toronto in his 20s, Westland had a Mazda MX-6, into which he'd transplanted a powerful JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) motor. "I loved it; that car was so fast, but there was nowhere to put it," he remembers. His place at the time didn't come with a parking spot and he couldn't get a street-parking permit from the city. He reluctantly sold the car after getting fed up paying for parking tickets.
"If a car club had existed then, I wouldn't have had to start one," Westland says.
Barlow, chief marketing officer of RClub, realized his car habit was unsustainable after the birth of his first child. He bought a family car (a station wagon) and suddenly there was no space for fun cars. "It's impossible," he says. "Traffic is one thing, but where I live [in downtown Toronto], there are no parking spots, only street parking, no land, no garages.
And it's like that for a lot of people in the city."
RClub handles the storage, maintenance, insurance and all the other time-consuming parts of exotic-car ownership, making it possible to have a car collection even if you live downtown. The club will make Toronto suck just a little bit less for people who love cars - provided they have at least $9,000 to spare.
"The release for us is the road; it's freedom," Barlow says.
"This [club], these cars, are a way to connect again and get some face time. ... We want people to feel excited about driving."
Even stuck in traffic, an old Porsche 911 can do that. Driving a great car on a great road might seem like a quaint pastime, but it can be a wonderful antidote to screen time and binge watching.
RClub is Toronto's first driver's club, and offers drivers the chance to book unique cars - both vintage and new - for a day, a weekend or longer.
RClub founders Noah Barlow, left, Adam Westland, centre, and Igor Denisov were inspired to create the driving club as a result of their shared passion for cars and collective frustration of being gearheads in the city.
Guests arrived in a range of exotic cars for RClub's launch, including a McLaren P1 supercar, above. The launch featured several of the vehicles in the club's roster, such as a vintage Acura NSX supercar, below.